Nisha Sajnani – On Art and Dialogue

One of the most challenging questions I encounter on a daily basis is: how are you? I find my experience of the human condition to be difficult to convey through casual spoken language. Can you ever fully describe how you feel and do yourself justice as a human being? To answer, I have to somehow squeeze the entirety of my experience into a simple two word response: “I’m good.”

We need art, be it painting, poetry, or drama, to express the inexpressible. Art creates a pause that allows us to really sit with what is being communicated. Listening to this creative expression in a deeply embodied way, with your whole body, gives rise to real dialogue.

I recently spoke with Nisha Sajnani about the relationship between art and community. Nisha defines community as something that we imagine and something that we experience. Art plays a role in imagining new ways of being and belonging. It creates an imaginal bridge between what is and what could be.

Nisha shares her experience with dramatic improvisation and outlines a four step recursive cycle of mirroring and emergence based on noticing, feeling, animating, and expressing. Much of my own work is inspired by Theory U which describes a similar process called “presencing” that revolves around iteratively tuning into what is emerging. The similarity in process is uncanny: observation, stillness, crystallization, action.

Dr. Nisha Sajnani is an Associate Professor and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at NYU. She directs the As Performance: Therapeutic Theatre Lab where her primary research areas of interest include the health benefits of theatre-making as it relates to social determinants of health, stigma, and social inclusion/exclusion, relational aesthetics in therapeutic theatre, scalable storytelling based interventions in schools, and sustainable mental health care in humanitarian contexts. Nisha is the co-editor of two books, including Trauma-Informed Drama Therapy: Transforming Clinics, Classrooms, and Communities, and has published numerous chapters and articles in research publications including The Arts in Psychotherapy, The Journal of the Applied Arts and Health, Canadian Theatre Review, and Canadian Women’s Studies. She also co-produced the documentary film, Fostering Democracy Through Theater.

In our conversation Nisha shares a handful of specific techniques she uses in her own practice. She talks about how bringing people together around an art making project is a way of fostering a sense of belonging allowing for multiple ways of encountering the reality of human experience. Our conversation is both deep and, at moments, poetic.

Please enjoy.

Roman Hanis – On Indigenous Wisdom in Practice

Much of my work revolves around exploring ways to cultivate heart centered presence online. What this means can be difficult to describe and it revolves around a direct experience of mutual presence and deep relatedness between two or more people.

To be honest, there are times I question whether the internet is an appropriate medium to deliver something like this. Shouldn’t we be spending less time online and more time together, in person? Undoubtedly, yes. At the same time, I connect help but observe that technology has become almost inseparably woven into the fabric of modern communication and, as such, perhaps it can be a powerful catalyst for wholeness and heartfelt human connection.

How to deliver experiences like this in an online context is an ongoing exploration. This podcast is itself a significant part of the process as an inquiry into the work of others across related domains. Today, I have an opportunity to share a conversation with a close friend and teacher who inspired some of my earliest journeys into intentional presence.

Roman Hanis has been working closely with the indigenous Peruvian cultures in the Amazonian rainforest and Andean mountains since 2001. During this time he has devoted his life to learning the ancient wisdom of these people while seeking possibilities for creating ecological sources of sustenance for local populations and working to preserve the rainforest and its spiritual heritage of sacred medicinal plants. He is the co-founder of the Paititi Institute which stewards 4000 acres of land in the Mapacho Valley of the Peruvian Andes. Roman’s work has been featured in the documentary film, The Sacred Science, and he travels throughout Peru and the US sharing a unique blend of Eastern and indigenous knowledge through community projects, healing retreats and educational workshops.

Our conversation does a deep dive into the technical aspects of creating a safe space and handling inevitable conflict in community. Roman offers insight into a process for bringing people together in heart presence and shares a beautiful quote about his own learning journey: “Everything is perfect with infinite room for improvement.”

Keith McCandless – On Liberating Structures

You could say I’m mildly obsessed with how to tap into deeper sources of knowing.  To me, it feels as though there is this vast reservoir of untapped potential just beyond the reach of conventional means of access.  How do we tap into this and can we magnify it through a collective process?

I have found that one of the gateways to this deeper potential revolves around presence and a sense of safe space.  But often, something more is needed – something to break through the habituated patterns of behavior that most people have grown accustomed to.  As humans, we tend to be naturally guarded and self-protective creatures of habit.  And yet, the promise of collective intelligence lies just beyond the boundary of our comfort zone.  How do we dissolve these self-imposed limitations?

I spoke with Keith McCandless this week, one of the co-creators of Liberating Structures.  Liberating Structures are a collection of simple, inclusive, and fun interaction templates designed to facilitate generative engagement.  Keith calls it simultaneously and mutually shaping the future.

The idea is that each moment offers a new view of what’s happening simultaneously to each participant and the mutual sharing of perspectives or data reshapes the space in which you can make choices.  Thus something truly new is generated by collectively tapping into the richness of what’s present.

We cover a range of topics including leadership in the context of collective intelligence and the importance of being in charge but not in control.  Keith shares, “our conventional habits are so fully engrained it really takes some strength from the leader or strength from everyone not to fall back into the old behaviors which are unwittingly exclusive, unwittingly stifling, of the richness that’s available to us all the time.”

There are so many things I learned in this conversation, from the origin story of Liberating Structures to the complexity science theory that underpins their architecture and the simple philosophy that makes them so effective.  I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Gabriel Mugar – On Being in Awe of People

One of the most important and challenging aspects inherent in community building is having a clear sense of shared purpose.  Without this, community often lacks substance and lasting stability.  I’ve seen this echoed through many conversations as well as my own personal experience.  But how does one cultivate and communicate this understanding?

Sometimes I like to fantasize that there is some sort of obscure magical formula for bringing people together in community.  But, what I find more often than not, is that much of it is just deep listening and clear communication.

My last conversation with Gabriel Mugar really brought this point home.  Gabe is a design researcher at Ideo.  In the past, his research has looked at how digital platforms used for knowledge production and civic engagement shape and constrain opportunities for volunteer participation and learning.  His community journey started in 2004 when he founded the Transformative Culture Project as a way to harness the economic power of creative arts for youth and community development.  He received his PhD from Syracuse University and was most recently a faculty member at the Emerson College Engagement Lab.

Gabe is something of a professional listener and offers some of his research refined approaches to understanding a community more deeply.  We talk about the role of listening, communication, feedback, and participation in the functioning of healthy community.

Gabe shares that “the mindset that you want to have is one of being in awe of people.  You should see people and their day to day routines as the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen because that’s what’s going to open up your mind to the experiences that are happening in front of you.”

Every time I speak with Gabe, I walk away with pages and pages of valuable notes that I apply to my own work.  This conversation is no different and offers insight into deep listening, community design, and participation dynamics from Gabe’s many years of academic and professional research.

Please enjoy our conversation.

Denise Easton – On Complexity

I was recently introduced to the field of complexity science. Broadly speaking, complexity recognizes that certain systems are more than the sum of their parts. A traditional approach to understanding a system might look at it the way a mechanic looks at a machine. If you can understand what each component does, you can understand the whole. But some systems, like organizations and communities or, say, the global human ecosystem, are more than the sum of their individual parts. They are complex.

What I particularly appreciate about this recognition is that it acknowledges an aspect of the unknown. So much human effort goes towards the pursuit of certainty at the expense of not knowing. I recently spoke with about this with Denise Easton. Denise shares that there is a sweet spot between chaos and certainty that is optimal for constructive creativity and this is where complexity thinking can help gain a better understanding. Whether it’s an organization, a community, or a movement like #metoo, applying a complexity lens can bring awareness to the emergent potential of a system.

Denise leads the Plexus Institute, a professional community that addresses real-world challenges through approaches rooted in complexity theory. She co-authored the book Complexity Works! Influencing Pattern-Based Change in Teams & Organizations, and is the co-founder of Complexity Space Consulting, an organization that helps companies cultivate profitable and innovative business practices through complexity thinking.

A complex system is the part, the whole, and the greater than the whole. Denise highlights a process of iterative inquiry and embodied awareness building that helps us see the reality and the potential of a system. In her own words, “Lurking behind every exchange that we have with somebody is an opportunity to discover something that has not been discovered.”

Waël Mechri-Yver – On Building Community in the City of Individuality

I recently heard a quote that really struck: “Infinite patience produces immediate results” (ACIM).  There is a zen wisdom to this that could apply to any aspect of life.  I think about it in the context of my own work building community online.  Every authentic human relationship is unique and bringing people together in ways that are real and meaningful takes humility and patience.

Recently, I spoke with Waël Mechri-Yver, the founder of BABËL New York and GOSPËL.  Waël was inspired by Burning Man to create a new kind of social experience based on co-creation and creativity.  Five years and 150 events in, Waël shares that there’s no shortcut to building community.  The mastery is in showing up and delivering value over and over again.  Repetition and consistency is the best community builder.

Waël has been involved with world-renowned hotspots including the mega-club of Paris, Cirque Bonheur, which he co-founded and gave music and creative direction to, Papagayo in St. Tropez for which he was artistic director for a season, and the revamped Marquee in New York whose re-launch he collaborated on to bring fresh air to the Marquee brand.

Waël shares his journey and an approach to building community that honors individuality through collective participation.  Listen closely to pick up the subtle ways that Babel has built a lasting platform for human connection in one of the toughest cities in the world.

Image credit: Jonsar Studios

Macaco Tamerice – On Living Together

A few weeks ago I watched a profound documentary called Wild Wild Country. It chronicles the story of spiritual leader Osho and his followers as they attempt to build a utopian communal city on US soil in the early 1980s. The effort did not end well, but watching the movie, I was struck with a deep desire to see it succeed. I wanted to believe that living in community like that could actually work.

My guest today has been living in one of the oldest and most successful spiritual communities in Europe for over 20 years. Damanhur is located in northern Italy and is famous for its Temples of Humankind – a massive 11 story excavation dug out of the inside of a mountain by hand by the residents of Damanhur who settled there some forty years ago.

In addition to serving as an ambassador of international community relations at Damanhur, Macaco Tamerice was the president of the Global Ecovillage Network from 2010 until 2015. She now represents the Global Ecovillage Network at the UN and serves as the president of the non-profit Damanhur Education organization. She consults with ecovillages around the world helping them make community living work.

We spoke at length about what makes Damanhur such a successful community, how they handle conflict and governance, and recipes for living together. Communal living is an emerging phenomenon of our time. All sorts of co-living communities are popping up around New York City (and the world no doubt) and many people I’ve spoken with are trying to deconstruct how living together can work in the twenty first century.

Macaco shares wisdom on the relationship between the individual and the collective, highlighting that far from being mutually exclusive, the two reinforce and support each other.

Please enjoy our conversation.

John Marshall Roberts – On the Key to Enlightened Leadership

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my path and its fulfillment.  At times, it can feel as if there is an ongoing spiral that oscillates between clarity and not knowing.  I have been learning how to live with this oscillation and learning to listen for whatever wisdom it might contain.  Often, the wisdom is precisely to cultivate a comfort with the unknown.

As much as I might hope to squeeze the future into a to do list, the future that I want to be a part of is well beyond my individual agenda.  In a recent conversation with John Marshall Roberts, he shares the power of personal purpose without personal agenda.  We unravel this seeming paradox and find empathy key to enlightened leadership.

I love this part – “If we’re being authentic about what we’re here to do, then it’s never been done before.  We’re a unique fingerprint.  If we find our calling, it’s never been done and we have to communicate with people who’ve never seen this before.  Empathy becomes a tool that we can use to help move them along to that next stage.”

I first encountered John in 2012 when I saw a TED talk he gave on empathy.  John is a behavioral scientist and empathy researcher and has been invited to share his research by a variety of leading global for profit, non-profit and governmental organizations including the US White House, UCLA, Unilever, 3M, Sprint, Time Warner, General Mills, and a who’s who of other fortune 500 companies.

John explains how empathy works, specific ways to cultivate and teach it, and how the most inspiring leaders of our time have used empathy to create profound change.  He offers an enlightened middle ground where agenda emerges and evolves through empathy and surrender.

John has opened within me a deep appreciation for the power not trying to fix the world.  If you enjoy our conversation, please read his four part series on inner change and transformational leadership.

Presencing in Practice

Over the last few years I’ve been heavily inspired by work out of the Presencing Institute and by the concept of presencing itself. The term presencing refers to a process of becoming present and it implies a way of encountering the present from the potential of the future. It is a way of “sensing” future possibility from the present moment.

Presencing revolves around bringing awareness to what is emerging through an iterative process of intention setting, observation, stillness, crystallization and action with an emphasis on stillness and being with what is unknown. By willfully stepping into the unknown, attention is directed towards emergent possibilities and something new has the potential to be generated.

This way of being with the unknown can be uncomfortable and challenging, particularly in situations where a clear plan of action for the future is called for. Over the last few years, I have used this kind of process to build Sutra and this post will explore what has emerged through this journey as well as thoughts on presencing in practice.

The originating intention behind Sutra was to cultivate more love in the world through mutually supportive, co-creative interaction. The heart of our aspiration was to foster deep levels of meaningful human connection – particularly around creative work. We spent the first two years testing different ideas to see what would stick. Eventually, our intention evolved into an effort to help people share knowledge and resources within community.

The work began with an initial direction that involved facilitating small group formation within the context of a larger community. A prototype was rolled out to a co-working space in New York City a few months after the first line of code was written in early 2015. Through an iterative process of observation, interviewing, presencing, and developing we followed an emerging thread to build the Sutra software.

One of the biggest challenges with this approach is that we have never really sure of what we are building. Even today, the product is constantly evolving and can be difficult to describe. This is a problem for a startup because success often depends on clarity of communication. So we are gradually finding new ways to describe our effort, emphasizing why over what and more focused on process than outcome.

The practical challenge of working with the unknown in this way should not be understated. It has been very difficult for us to not know what we are building over the long term. In many ways, this has required a great deal of surrender and trust – words not commonly associated with a tech venture.

Our intention to foster genuine human connection through collaborative community interaction has always been clear. Progress has involved a multitude of test driven iterations aimed at understanding how to accomplish this through real world exploration and experimentation. One of the earliest obstacles we encountered was community engagement and participation. It can be very challenging to get a community of people to start using a new piece of software.

A major insight came to us through our work with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. In 2016, we had an opportunity to run the online component of their seven month blended learning program on Sutra. We adapted our software to deliver a small group oriented learning experience to support their course and observed that a learning experience can be a significant catalyst for engagement.

Consequently, much of our work has focused on building community through learning. We have found that building community this way is part technology, part process, and part content. For example, much of the success of an online small group oriented learning experience depends on the first week of the course – how the energy is set, the safe space that is created, the way expectations are communicated, and the feedback that people get to reinforce those expectations. We have developed a set of best practices in conjunction with features designed to optimize group engagement.

The process by which we develop new features is partially intuitive based on observation and partially practical in response to feedback. We continually navigate a territory between our core intention and real world usage. For example, at the conclusion of a learning experience, we encourage participants to continue communicating with their community through the platform. The software is intentionally built in the form factor of a basic messaging platform to encourage easy interaction and collaboration. However, there is a cognitive leap that must happen for people to use the platform as both a learning tool and a collaborative utility. Our challenge has been to understand how to expand their context of use beyond the initial learning experience.

One example that we’ve seen work particularly well, is a new course community emerging from an existing course community. In the Harvard program mentioned earlier, a student decided to create her own mindfulness oriented course for humanitarian aid workers in the refugee space. Many of the students from the Harvard program went on to participate in her course.

We continue to experiment with unique approaches to participation feedback and collaborative knowledge building. There seems to be tremendous opportunity to harness the knowledge and wisdom of course participants in a way that builds community and adds value to each member. This is a pedagogical approach to community building that is based on a teacher-student and student-teacher paradigm. We are looking at ways of collaboratively capturing wisdom and knowledge shared through course conversation as a way to deepen engagement while building collaboratively generated sources of knowledge.

Each community that we work with usually cycles through several iterations of a course of learning. Each iteration is an opportunity for us to experiment with different approaches to engagement and community building with an entirely new cohort of people. At the conclusion of each experience we usually do extensive interviews with both participants and creators. The cycle is like a mini presencing process, enabling us to sense into what is emerging through real world observation and feedback.

What has been emerging through this work is a collection of tools and best practices that support co-creative interaction based on presencing and collective intelligence. Our evolving effort has focused on building a co-creative utility that can be used seamlessly in the context of real world interaction, so as to blur the lines between learning and collaboration. A system that bridges learning, being, and doing with an emphasis on authentic human connection.

Dina Kaplan – On Building a Community and a Business

It is interesting for me to observe how minor challenges that I experience and ignore are sometimes transformed into meaningful opportunities by other people.  I remember moving to New York in late 2011 and looking for a place to meditate.  It was hard finding anything and the places that I did find didn’t quite feel right.  So I just meditated at home.

Around the same time my friend Dina Kaplan was getting burned out on start up life running Blip.TV.  She took a couple of years off to go traveling, and, while in India, discovered meditation and felt called to make this her life’s work.  Returning to New York, she found the options for meditation lacking and started hosting her own gatherings.

Now Dina is the founder of The Path which hosts weekly sits, courses, retreats, and teacher training programs oriented around a modern approach to mindfulness.  She’s been covered by the New York Times, The New Yorker, Forbes, Elle, The New York Post, The Sunday Times, Business Insider, and a host of other prominent publications.

I suspect Dina might have a something of PR super power.  I was intrigued to hear how she described her relationship to press coverage:

I can just see the story, what it should look like and how to make it work for publication.  I can visualize it and pitch it and then it always happens.

She visualizes it and then it happens.  I’ll have to try that.

I spoke with Dina about her journey building The Path as both a community and a business.  Dina talks about becoming an authentic human being and shares her open hearted approach to the New York hustle, something she calls the economy of favors.  Next month, she’s hosting a conscious leadership retreat for business leaders, founders, scientists, and creatives of all types.  Entrepreneur Magazine calls it a TED-like event for meditators.  If you enjoy our conversation, please check out her MELA retreat.